Interviews

Accountability and Goverance: Julie Howard and Emily Alpert

At the 2008 L’Aquila G8 Summit, $22 billion, including $3.5 billion of US money, was pledged towards improving global food security.  The speakers on May 22nd discussed issues of governance and accountability in relation to the food policy that came out of the 2008 Summit, and the progress that had been made since L’Aquila.

Julie Howard is the Chief Scientist in the USAID Bureau for Food Security, which leads the U.S. global hunger and food security initiative Feed the Future. Emily Alpert is the Senior Policy Manager for agriculture and food security at ONE, a grassroots advocacy organization dealing with problems of extreme poverty. Calumet students Katherine Rittenhouse, Noah Lee, and Linda Qiu sat down with the two speakers in discussion.

Q: What is the traditional trajectory of U.S. global food security policy? How has it changed with Feed the Future?

Julie Howard: Agricultural food security assistance dropped way off between the 1970s and now. We really started investing in emergency food aid, fixing food shortages with food aid. [The new] approach really gets us back on the track of helping folks grow their own food and economies through improving their agricultural sector. So it’s big shift for us that way. It’s also a big shift in terms of who controls the development agenda. The focus is much more now on ‘how do we invest in country-determined priorities’ rather than the projects and plans that we dream up in Washington. Also, over the last couple of decades, we in USAID have lost a lot of monetary evaluation capacity, so we’re building that back. We mean this to be a much more transparent, accountable way of developing assistance.

Q: What progress has been made since the G8 summit three years ago, and where has that $22 billion gone?

Emily Alpert: The G8 had different ways in which they promised that money was going to be spent. Some pledges were made in commitments and some in dispersements. So that means that most G8 countries made commitments, … they had contractual obligations to spend that money but not necessarily spend [it] within three years, whereas others said that the money would get to the ground within three years. So we’re at a point where 58% of funds have been dispersed, gotten to the ground. The rest has nearly all been committed, so the implementation of these funds will occur over time [and] the impact won’t be realized immediately.  One of the very positive things the G8 did this time around in this accountability report was to go country by country and determine what they were spending the money on, what types of programs they’re supporting, [whether they’re] investing in both short-term and long-term food security and agricultural development.

JH: If you look through the accountability report, you’ll see that most countries—including the U.S—are confident that we’re going to meet our pledges over three years. That doesn’t mean that funds have been dispersed. We at Feed the Future think it’s important for us to not just disperse it all because we want to align our program with country-set priorities, and we understand that it takes time to understand the process of consultation, civil society, private sector on the ground. Some countries have high dispersement rates because they’ve parked their commitments in a fund, which may or may not have been [actually] dispersed but [which] count as dispersements. It’s a little tricky to understand what’s happened with [the] 22 billion but we think that most countries are on track to meeting their commitments. The questions that we ask are ‘have the commitments and dispersements been aligned with the countries’ priorities?’. And we see that there’s not enough alignment yet.

Q: Do G8 countries and the U.S. foresee any consequences that go along with industrialization and development in target nations?

JH: In the countries where Feed the Future is focusing, they’re really the counties where poverty and hunger are the worst across the globe, and agricultural production is not intensive at all. For example, the level of agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa is about the same as during the Roman era. So you don’t often see large-scale farms, or levels of fertilizer or pesticide use, or run-off issues here. But what’s good is that people are already beginning to ask questions about sustainability and beginning to understand that even in countries where there appears to be a lot of uncultivated land, more and more challenges are about how you sustainably intensify production.

EA: A lot depends on what actually gets invested in. But, the intention of Feed the Future is to incorporate small-holder farmers into development assistance programs. They don’t have the same types of resources or technologies as farms in the U.S with 5,000 hectors of land. Their environmental footprints in some cases are too low. They’re not doing enough to meet their own needs. Environmental consequences, those questions are being asked and people are approaching those with sustainability in mind.

Q: In addressing hunger, how are the resources that we have divided between short-term goals and long-term structural changes?

JH: We’re still spending too much on emergency food aid. That’s not to say that emergency food assistance and humanitarian intervention aren’t important. It’s really important. I think we’ve been slow to come about to see that the way to help people most is to invest for long-term development, the type that will increase farmers’ resilience to climate change, droughts, floods. We badly need investment strategies that will help resilience so we’re not seeing people on the brink of disaster. [We need to be] investing for the long-term but also trying to figure out how to work with the emergency office to see which investments can serve a dual purpose, like water-walls and roads. The balance is still not great.

EA: ONE recently launched a campaign called Thrive, a campaign about getting G8 governments, African governments, and the private sector to start working together better to invest in long-term solutions for food insecurity. We want to start laying the foundation to help people be able to withstand economic crises or environmental shocks. We did a lot of work showing the differences in what happened in Ethiopia versus Somalia during the summer of 2011 when there were areas of famine. Ethiopia, a country that used to be plagued by drought-induced famine, has made a huge transformation because they’ve started making investments in long-term agricultural development and food security. They have a very large social protection service that helps people work during the hunger season, get access to income or food to weather difficult times. The impacts compared to Somalia were very drastic.

Q: This lecture series is about food insecurity and food in security. So how do federal programs like Feed the Future and grassroots programs like Thrive play into issues of national and global security?

JH: We’ve seen a big change since 2008, when we had a food price crisis. That was a wakeup call. You saw increases in prices result in riots, toppled governments. In 30 different countries, you had some kind of civil unrest. In my career, food security and agriculture has been for policy wonks and folks interested in those boring things. Then after 2008, you had the security council paying attention, think-tanks in Washington normally focused on strategic issues and defense pick up and pay attention. We’ve also been in more collaboration with the defense department over the past several years, trying to understand the mix of humanitarian assistance that can bridge longer term assistance. But, as former Security of Defense Gates said, it’s much cheaper to lay the foundations than it is to send our people into grounds to deal with instability. It’s been a long-time coming and it’s firmly imbedded now.

EA: It’s naïve to think that if there’s civil unrest in other parts of the world over basic access to resources has no impact or bearing on our lives. If a government has to deal with unrest in a bordering country, it can affect with their ability to trade. Our economies are very connected and we sink or swim together. So we need to be addressing problems collectively.